Regarding suicide. (not a suicide note)

I was watching an episode of Glee last week when I found myself crying uncontrollably.  I had a minor panic attack, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t calm down at all. I had to pause the episode and just sit for about five minutes recovering.  I then, of course, took to Twitter and Facebook to relieve myself of the feeling – writing, and sharing, is incredibly therapeutic.

It was at the end of this scene. The scene looks terribly cliché as a standalone video, but in the context of the episode and series it was actually quite powerful.  I’m not sure if this video will still be up by the time this is posted; apologies if it’s gone.  I’ve chosen to post this entry on Pink Shirt Day for he obvious reasons, but also for less obvious and complicated personal reasons – I’m writing it on February 23rd.

The reason this scene (and the 7 minutes that preceded it) affected me so much was obviously not because of this fictional character. It triggered emotions I hadn’t felt in a really long time, but had been there all along, just waiting to be brought back out again.  It reminded me of high school.  Of losing at least one wonderful person to suicide.  And almost losing myself to the same.

After recovering, I did watch the rest of the episode and lost it again when one of the characters told a story about his own attempted suicide.  It was over something that was about as trivial as you could imagine: getting caught cheating on a test.  And it reminded me of my own story.  And made me a little less ashamed of it.  Made my teenage melodrama – and reflecting back on it now, that’s really what it was – feel less selfish and idiotic and more, well, real.  Because that’s how it felt at the time.

I was also reminded of an entry posted by Dave Meslin, a popular Toronto activist, encouraging people to share their mental health stories.  I recall posting a link to it at the time, but was not yet strong enough to contribute.  I do believe people should talk about these things.  Somehow, I now feel strong enough. Just barely.

I’ve never told anyone this story.

I was awkward as a teenager. Hell, I’m still awkward.  But back then I didn’t  know that it was okay to be awkward. Okay to be different. Because it felt like I was alone.

I was a nerd.  There was no getting around it.  I had big dorky glasses, which I’d had to wear since grade 6.  Contact lenses just weren’t an option yet, so I had no choice.  I was also smart – I’ve always identified, and still do identify, a little bit with Lisa Simpson (I even eventually played the sax)…. Getting good grades came relatively easy to me (though I worked hard for them), and I actually wanted to get good grades, which of course was totally uncool.  I was the most unathletic person you could imagine – I hated anything involving physical activity.  Oh, and I was a year younger than everyone in my grade – I skipped grade five.

I was overweight, and reminded of this regularly by my parents and occasionally by classmates.  Strangely, looking back at old photos of myself, I just don’t see a fat kid.  But at the time, I felt fat, because I was told time and time again that I was.  I also had no sense of style: my idea of school clothes was wearing a t-shirt many sizes too large for me and jeans.  And I was also starting to get really bad acne.

I was also gay.  I knew it from an early age, and there was really no doubting it.  The boys in my school totally interested me, and the girls were really great for being friends with.  Then, as now, I still had the occasional crush on a girl, but the ideas of bisexuality or being ‘queer’ weren’t even on my radar.  I had obsessive crushes on guys who would never even show the remotest bit of interest in me – because as far as I can tell, they were straight (and still are).  Every year there was a new one that I obsessed over, and every time I knew full well he probably didn’t even know who I was, let alone have any interest in me.

These things fluctuated through high school, but at the point where this story actually begins, I was probably at the peak of the uncool parts of the nerdiness, and definitely unhappy with the way I looked.  And I had told no one about being gay.  Not one single person.  At least, no one in real life.

I would occasionally go into Yahoo! Chat rooms during my regimented one-hour-per-day of dial-up internet usage, despite being strictly forbidden by my parents to go into any chat rooms. We’ll get to them in a minute, but I of course knew early on how to clear parts of browsing history without it looking like I’d cleared all of it (this eventually became helpful for accessing porn).  Most of the time I spent in these chat rooms was typical teen-in-the-early-days-of-the-internet stuff – chat rooms about the Backstreet Boys, Alanis Morissette, and so on. I was particularly fond of the trivia rooms – if you played trivia games with THE_RELIC_IS_HERE (I have no idea where that username came from) in the mid-1990s, that was me.  I occasionally, though rarely, found my way into the LGBT / adult chat rooms.  In retrospect, I’m sure I was a nightmare for the people I met in there. One conversation stands out in my mind that I had with a gay couple somewhere in the US, where I was asking naïve questions about coming out and how gaydar works – when I’m sure they were just looking for someone to talk dirty with them.  But this was where I went for comfort, for shelter.  For a way to know I wasn’t the only one like me.  Well – sort of.  At this point I still hadn’t met anyone who was gay and was nerdy and fat.  That took many more years.  But these people, none of whom I ever stayed in touch with longer than our chat session lasted, knew I was gay, and were fine with it.

I had friends, but at the time didn’t have many.  Some were better friends than others.  Some were more suitable friends than others.  Some were closer friends than others.  But in my sexuality, I was utterly alone.

So yes, I got picked on by other people at school.  People that knew, or thought they knew, that I was gay.  That I was effeminate. That I didn’t fit their standards of what they thought was cool. Or what they thought was acceptable.  It probably didn’t even matter who I was or what I was – I was weak, so they picked on me.  It came in all forms, but it very, very, rarely involved anything physical or even the threat of anything physical.  Interestingly, that seemed to come more later, but even then it was nothing serious.  I never once back then thought of the way I was treated as “being bullied.”  Even today I’m not convinced that’s what it was.  For me, it felt like people just saw right through me, saw my weak spots, and went for them.  And that somehow, that was normal – it was no different than I’d been treated all through school.  Some of it was just outright implying or say that I was gay (which, at the time, I had never acknowledged).  Some of it was teasing for being smart – the usual ‘brown-nose’ comments.  Some of it was just being mean – holding doors shut when I needed to go through them, refusing to move from in front of my locker when I needed access to it, that sort of thing.  Some made fun of my voice, which was higher-pitched than the average boy in my grade.  Others were just weird — there was one guy in my grade 9 science class, Ryan Scott, who started accusing me of doing unfathomable things to squirrels – and didn’t let up. Ever.

And then there were my parents. I don’t talk about them much online, as they’ve previously found blog posts of mine and given me a hard time about them.  But this is relevant to this post.  We never really got along.  It had nothing to do with my sexuality – I’m not convinced it has ever had to do with that.  They were often paranoid about unlikely things happening, which led to overly cautious behaviour.  It also led to overzealous controlling behaviour.  Overprotective was an understatement.  I have always been a very independent person, which was particularly manifesting itself in my teens, and I think this made them uncomfortable.  Even today they don’t like acknowledging that I’m a separate human being who has control over my own life choices.

As mentioned, I was forbidden from going into any chat rooms, whatsoever.  Message/bulletin boards were a gray area, and they never really became comfortable with them.  Meeting anyone I’d met online would be the cardinal sin.  The Internet was an evil and scary place as far as they were concerned, and spending time on there was dangerous.  Then there was the real-life stuff.  I recall a few years earlier, my grade school had gotten a deal on baseball caps with our school logo on them and everyone was ordering them.  They were being monogrammed for free, but I was not allowed to get my name or even my initials on mine (despite the fact that everyone else got theirs) because by some strange logic they decided that someone would call my name after reading it on my cap and I would naïvely turn around, greet them with open arms as if I knew them, and then be raped and murdered.  Actually, everything was about being raped and murdered with them.  The Internet: raped and murdered.  Being outdoors after dark: raped and murdered.  Wearing the wrong kind of clothing: raped and murdered.  Being alone in public: raped and murdered.  And so on.

I thought about suicide often enough.  I had long since decided I would never let myself get to 30 – that I would live through high school and maybe university but if I had to spend the rest of my life working that I might as well just end it before it got boring.  But I also saw suicide as an inevitability — that as soon as I figured out a practical way to do it, that would be it. I would end it.  In my mind, there was no place for a fat gay nerd like me in society.  No one would ever want me, and I didn’t even want myself.  Everything had turned out all wrong and it didn’t matter.  But I didn’t have access to a gun to put in my mouth, I had known people who had tried slitting their wrists and failed in spectacular disasters, and the whole hanging oneself thing just seemed impractical and painful.  I wanted it to be quick and easy, and I’d never gotten desperate enough to do it slow and painful.

.

It was in this context that I arrived at Boxing Day, 1997.  14.5 years old, well aware that I was gay, terrified to tell anyone, and having a minimal number of friends that I could really rely on.  I had two goals for Boxing Day: go Boxing Day shopping, and see Titanic, which had come out a little over a week earlier.  I specifically wanted to go to the Pen Centre, which was a 10 minute walk from my high school and the largest shopping mall in the Niagara Region.  Countless times before and after this incident, I had stopped at the mall on the way to or from school to pick up something here and there — Sam The Record Man was my favourite.  And there, I could both shop and then go see the film.  As I recall, I actually did something similar a year earlier.  I like spending time alone but in a crowd, and I didn’t have any friends that wanted to see the film, so I made plans to take the bus there (something I did every single school day — it was on the same bus route as the bus I took to school during the term).

But for some reason, this time, my parents decided going to the mall or movie theatre alone = raped and murdered.  How anyone could commit such heinous crimes around thousands of people in a busy shopping mall is beyond me, but thus was the logic of my parents.  So, being the age I was and having little to no control over things, I lied.  I said I was going to meet a friend there.  They asked who, and I chose the name of a friend who shares her name with another friend… strangely I had two friends with the exact same first and last name (with a slight spelling difference), but this served me well at the time as I decided if one didn’t work out the other would.

I had a good day at the mall, spending my hard-earned money (I had a paper route at the time, and was a few months away from getting a job at a Harvey’s) and browsing among the crowds.  I bought my ticket to see Titanic, grabbed some popcorn and sat down and waited for the film to start.  As if on cue, my father walked into the theatre, said that if I didn’t want him to cause a scene I had better come with him.  As it turned out, one of the two friends with the same name called my house (damn the days before mobile phones!) asking for me.   I never figured out how he got into the theatre, or even figured out that that was the specific one I’d be at.  It didn’t occur to me that using this friend’s name would double the odds of her calling my house, though.  I’m not sure why I didn’t just use a fake name.  Anyways, I got dragged home, feeling angry, ripped off (movie tickets are expensive and I didn’t even get to see the movie), and as if I had no control over my own life.

The punishment meted out was harsh (by a 14 year-old’s standards) — no internet use for some extremely long time, and I could only send and receive emails while offline and my father would read the emails that were going in and out.  (As an aside, this harshness is amongst the reason I’m even now opposed to parents trying to ‘protect’ their kids from the internet by imposing harsh rules and restrictions like this — I quickly figured out that I could create a Hotmail account and check it at school.  This account ended up being the email address I used for anything I didn’t want my parents to know about, and actually made me feel much happier and freer to do more dangerous and probably illegal things online). Even my phone use was limited.  What would I tell my friends? “Sorry, I can’t email you, my parents won’t let me.” “Why not?” “I went to the movies alone.”

All I can remember was lying on my bed bawling my eyes out.  I had this sense that I was never going to have any freedom – at least not for a number of years (and years seem like eternities when you’re 14).  That in addition to having no real peers — at least, none that could truly share in the experiences I was having, or to whom I felt I could really open up — I had parents who only wanted me to be their puppet.  I felt so painfully alone that even in reflecting on it now I can’t even understand how I could feel so alone.  I just know that, in that moment, nothing mattered anymore.  There was nothing to live for.  I could spend my days getting up, going to school, coming home, doing my homework, and going to bed.  In retrospect, I think losing access to the internet, which had become a lifeline for me, was probably the last straw – even though the whole drama combined really drove it all.

I had finally become desperate enough.

I considered my options, and realised that none of them were particularly practical.  Impractical suicide would never do – I wanted to succeed.  I didn’t want to hurt myself, I just wanted it to be over.  I did the best I could.  I regularly had headaches in my teens so I always had a small container of extra strength Tylenol in my backpack, which conveniently was in my bedroom with me.  It was more than half-empty, I remember that, but I don’t remember much more.  I downed every last one of them.  I soon realised that wasn’t going to be enough, so I headed for my parents’ stash in the downstairs bathroom and grabbed the whole bottle.  My mother caught me on the way back up, I feigned having a bad headache, and got handed two pills and sent back to my room (I believe I was in my room as part of the punishment… or something).  Figuring it was my best hope, I took those two and just lay on the bed crying.

I was, of course, wildly unsuccessful at doing anything in particular with this, despite all my hopes.  Needless to say, overdosing on Tylenol probably could kill you.  But I clearly didn’t have access to enough to do any real damage.  I was hopeful it would.  Looking on wikipedia just now I see that even if I’d been successful it would have taken 3-5 days for any serious damage to present itself.  I basically just slept away the rest of the day (it certainly knocked me out), and lived out the rest of what became an increasingly excruciating Christmas holiday.

It was only days later that my Yahoo! Chat profile was discovered by my parents, and the Internet ban made longer and stricter.  I lied about the gay content they found on there (which was rather explicit).  I used the stock lines about being curious and it being a phase.  I even told that to the family therapist I was later dragged to, who I learned years later promptly passed that answer on to my parents.

It took a long time before I stopped thinking about suicide regularly.  A really long time.  I was mad at myself for failing.  I wanted to try again.  I felt like there was no other way out of where I was.  If someone had given me an easy way to do it, I would have.

It was this moment, and this time of my life, that the Glee scenes triggered.  The writers and actor portrayed that feeling in a way that only someone who’s been through it can.  The overwhelming feeling that the people around you have no idea what’s really going on in your mind or in your heart.  That panic, that decision that this is it – there’s no other hope, this is the final time, and anything will do.  The desperate need to be alone so you can figure out how to do it.  The frantic searching for something, anything, that will help you figure out the quickest and most painless way to do it.  The convincing yourself not to do it. And then to do it. And then not to do it.  And then to do it.

People say suicide is selfish.  They say that as if somehow that’s a deterrent.  Suicide is selfish.  But if someone’s at a point in their life where they make that decision, selflessness is the last thing on their mind.  For me it was about ending the pain.  Ending the daily agony.  That spoke louder than any other voice in my head – just making all the awfulness stop.  I didn’t care if it was selfish.  I just wanted it to be over.

I don’t want to ever, ever, feel that way again.  And I don’t want anyone else to ever feel like that.

Years later, after I’d long since come out of the closet, and with the assistance of medical science no longer had acne or had to wear glasses, I noticed someone I hardly knew had changed her MSN Messenger status to something like “ending it all tonight.”  After inquiring, I learned she had already taken a number of pills (in a combination likely more toxic than anything I tried, washed down with some vodka for good measure), and was planning to take more.  I was able to chat with her, first online and then over the phone, long enough for an ambulance to arrive (the beauty of the internet is the ability to discretely chat with more than one person at once – another friend was able to call emergency services while I relayed her phone number from my call display).  She was fortunately okay, but afterwards she both thanked me and got angry at me for interrupting her attempt.  It’s only now, reflecting back on my own experiences, that I realise why she felt that way.  We lost touch as quickly as we met, but I do hope she’s still okay.

I’m at a loss for how to end this post.  Many people who talk about this sort of thing have prescribed to the It Gets Better format… and it does get better; my life is certainly quite wonderful now and I’m glad I’m still here 14 years later. But “it gets better,” no matter how sincere, wouldn’t have changed my mind back then.  I don’t know what would have, actually.  I think the triggering incident can easily be blamed, but so can the environment that someone goes into it with.  I’ll just leave it at that, and let you take from this what you will.  If you’ve gotten this far, thank you for hearing my story.  I hope you are able to share your own, and that we can start to have open discussions about these sorts of things.  If you’re feeling the way I was that day, then I hope that by the same twist of fate that  sent you here, you’re also still here tomorrow.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. I never knew how bad it was for you at home. I always suspected that your parents were… different. But I think that’s part of why you grew up to be so successful and independent.

    As for when you came out. I remember distinctly how people often joked around that “you were so gay”. So when you sat there as the bell rang and said “Hey guys, by the way, I’m gay” I didn’t know if you were joking. I wish I could have responded in a more supportive way. But honestly, back then, it was hard to be supportive of your friends. I got bullied a little for being your friend. But then again, I never really fit into our high school anyways. I was one of those awkward kids that was good at sports, and somewhat good at school, but didn’t really fit into any crowd.

    I’m glad you never found a practical way of killing yourself. I still wish I had been there for Dan.

    Reply

    • Thanks Miriam, I appreciate your words. I had no idea any of you got picked on for being my friend. Thank you for standing by me despite that.

      I suspect we were all a little awkward, which is why we all got along so well, despite our occasional differences. Things started getting better for me around the time I came out, actually, as cliché as that sounds. Though I’ve never been able to tell what drove what – I had to build up strength to do it, but in turn being able to be honest with other people gave me further strength. I’m just thankful it didn’t sour my relationship with anyone that actually mattered to me – I’ve heard so many stories where others were not as fortunate.

      Reply

  2. Posted by traveleish on 2012/03/01 at 1:22 am

    Thank you for writing about this.

    Reply

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